How to tell if you’re in an emotionally manipulative relationship
These are the warning signs
A year ago this month Britain amended domestic abuse laws to consider ‘psychological abuse’ a crime punishable of up to five years in prison. The law meant someone could be sentenced if they repeatably engaged in “controlling, coercive” behaviour, like isolating a person from their family and friends, controlling what they do, where they go, who they can see and where they sleep.
It also included financial abuse, threats to reveal or publish private information about a person, repeatedly putting them down and telling them they’re worthless and enforcing rules or activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise them. The change was a step in the right direction, but the fact remains that many people in emotionally abusive relationships, be it with a partner, relative or friend, often don’t recognise the signs of abuse.
If you’re worried about a friend or your own situation, these signs of emotional manipulation could be what to look out for:
Constant reminders of your failures and flaws, to make sure you know ‘what’s wrong with you’
You may feel like you can’t respond to the constant criticism of who you are because, in emotionally abusive relationships, they’re given under the guise of ‘help’ to become somehow better. They may even make threats which they feel are suggestions to help you. As a result of constant verbal abuse you may start to feel like something is wrong with you that only the emotional abuser can ‘fix’. You might not experience physical abuse, but if your partner is constantly belittling, criticising or putting you down, then it could be a sign of emotional abuse instead.
They make you feel like you are crazy or that you don’t have a grip on reality, by emphatically telling you that things you did or said happened in a way you didn’t intend or didn’t remember. This can also take the form of flat denials that they’ve done or said anything wrong that will make you doubt your own sanity and ability to recall events. As a result you’ll feel disorientated, guilty and unsure of yourself. You may even stop doing things you enjoy or talking as much because you’re so afraid that your motives or actions will be distorted.
They shift the blame of all events onto you – if you hadn’t been so difficult they wouldn’t have said all those things you’re upset about. If you weren’t such a horrible person, they wouldn’t have to fight with you all the time. They may even use language that shifts their emotions and reactions onto you (“you make me so angry” “It wouldn’t be like this if you weren’t -“). Blame-shifting effectively discredits the victim entirely – they end up feeling responsible for all negativity in the relationship and have to work harder and harder to fix the problem.
Moving the goal posts
Moving the goalposts is a conventional humiliation tactic aimed at making someone feel like they can never ‘live up’ to the expectations of their partner and are always destined to fail because they keep raising expectations and changing the ‘rules’ when you least expect it. This can also come in the form of a bait and switch which leaves you confused – they’ll volunteer to do something then act like a martyr or like you put them in an uncomfortable position, they’ll reveal private information but then point out that you never told them not to.
Not letting you speak
During the Presidential debates this year Donald Trump displayed this emotional abuse tactic pretty plainly, constantly shouting over and interrupting Hillary Clinton when she tried to explain herself. You may find that in conversations your partner repeats themselves louder and louder or asks questions which shifts the blame of interruption onto you (“Can you let me speak?” “Sorry, I’m speaking now”).
Controlling who you see and speak to (isolation)
They may encourage you to cut ties with friends they feel are a bad influence on you, particularly of the opposite sex in heterosexual relationships. While they might not force you to do this, it’ll be framed in a way that could make you feel like you’re hurting them by engaging in these friendships (“Oh, you go out with them a lot” “It upsets me that you guys talk so much” “They see you more than I see you”).
Lack of support
In a healthy relationship each person should support the other, their ambitions, successes and dreams. But in an emotionally abusive partnership the other person may undermine your successes rather than support them, pointing out holes in your happiness or one-upping you with their own success.